Continued from Woolim, part 1: How low can a salary get?

Early January 2014, Iqbal comes to the office with a group of his co-workers telling us that three of the fifteen men have accepted a settlement offer from the employer Woolim, wherein each of them would receive $2,000. This, says Iqbal, is a far cry from what they are owed — in the region of about $9,000 each for several months of short-payment.

“I think their families very rich,”  the men remark sardonically of their former peers.

Each of the men here in TWC2 received the same offer too, but “We no accept.”  The amount was too little. Having paid large amounts as placement fees to job agents, they may not have earned enough to recover the investment. $2,000, they say, won’t plug the gap.

These twelve guys who have rejected the offer have been given a ‘labour court’ date for 23 January 2014. “Labour court” is technically a hearing before the Commissioner of Labour who will adjudicate the question and issue a formal order as to how much the employer should pay the men.

TWC2 social worker Karno tells Iqbal and the rest to contact us again just prior to the labour court date so that we can go through the facts with them once more and ensure that their papers are in order.

15 January 2014: Radha Basu, a journalist with the Straits Times, tells us of her intention to do a feature article about ridiculously low wages for foreign workers. We say, “Have we got a case for you! Hossain Iqbel and his friends from Woolim. $1.50 per hour, fully documented.”

She wants to interview him.

“No problem,” we say. “We’ll set up a meeting.”

But when we call Iqbal’s number, we discover it’s been disconnected. Has he been repatriated? But the labour court date hasn’t passed yet. We worry that repatriation agents have seized the group and sent them home forcefully.

Radha gets a meeting with a senior official at the Ministry of Manpower and takes the opportunity to ask what happened to the Woolim men. We later understand from Radha that the ministry confirmed to her that the men had been repatriated. A “settlement” had been reached, but no details of the settlement can be released because it was “private and confidential”.

Several questions race through TWC2 social workers’ minds on hearing this:

1. The men had never thought their salary details were “private and confidential”; they had willingly shared everything with us. What made them suddenly reach for confidentiality? External pressure? Did powers greater than them insist that they would get nothing if they kept speaking to NGOs and the media? If so, why would powers want such a lid?

2. How much of the average $9,000 owed to each worker was actually paid up?

We can’t help but wonder if the amount offered was a measly one, and therefore it became necessary to avoid prying eyes.

We also learnt that MOM would not be pressing charges against the employer. This despite the fact that in a letter published in the Straits Times 13 February 2014, with special reference to Radha’s article and indirect reference to the Woolim case, Alvin Lim, Division Director, Workplace Policy and Strategy Division, wrote:

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) protects foreign workers against employers who unilaterally reduce their salaries from what were declared in the In-Principle Approval letters without first obtaining the workers’ express written consent and notifying the ministry of the reduction.

Such employers may be fined up to $10,000 per infringement under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. We similarly prohibit Singapore employment agencies from overcharging.

The Woolim men were adamant that they have never agreed to any lowering of their salaries. Therefore the condition “obtaining the workers’ express written consent” does not apply in this case. Yet no prosecution followed. TWC2 understands that the ministry’s reason was that “the workers didn’t want to press charges”.  But this shouldn’t be necessary. The documented evidence is there, revealing a unilateral reduction of salaries declared in the In-Principle Approval Letters — to use the MOM’s own words. It’s an open-and-shut case. It is not only a tort against the men; it is a violation of ministry’s rules. Being the (supposedly) aggrieved party, the ministry had a right to press charges itself.

MOM should not be boasting that they have excellent protection systems in place when there is no will to enforce any of their own rules.

Radha Basu’s article, published 9 February 2014, is available via a link from here. Alvin Lim’s letter to the Straits Times is also at that location.

See updates: Woolim, part 3: employer charged and Woolim, part 4: employer pleads guilty, fined $36,000